On Friday afternoon, the Department of Home Affairs released second stage documents for its ‘Delivering Visa Services for Australia – Global Digital Platform’ tender. This innocuously sounding Request for Tender sets the stage for an attempt to privatise Australia’s visa processing system if the Coalition is re-elected, making it an election issue.
In the 2016-17 Budget, the Coalition announced plans to “reform the visa system”. In September 2017, the Department of Home Affairs released market consultation documents indicating that as part of the reform, it planned to let private operators build a new visa processing platform, operate it and profit from it. Over the past year, further preparations have been made with two shortlisted consortiums invited to bid. Tender documents indicate the winning bidder would earn over $300m per year for a decade for an estimated $1 billion investment.
There are parallels with the attempt to privatise the Medicare payments system in 2016 which was similarly justified on the basis that the system needed to be enhanced and modernised. That campaign against the Medicare privatisation attempt was a key Labor attack on the Coalition, dominating the 2016 election campaign, resulting in a last minute election pledge by Malcolm Turnbull that there would be no privatisation at all.
Just as the campaign against the privatisation of the Medicare payments system torpedoed the Coalition’s election chances in 2016, could visa privatisation, until now a slow burner issue, play a similar role in 2019?
Labor has already indicated it will oppose the privatisation and there is opposition by influential individuals and civil society for a range of reasons. Former Department of Immigration Deputy Secretary Abul Rivzi has been highly critical of the proposal due its possible impact on the integrity of the immigration system. Concerns also have been raised by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia and the Community and Public Sector Union has warned there is the potential for 3,000 job losses, not only in Canberra but across the country like in Tasmania.
Unlike many election issues, it also has the potential to hurt the Coalition in both multicultural swing electorates in Sydney and Melbourne such as Banks, Reid, Chisholm and Bennelong as well as in regional Queensland seats where they are seeking to claw back primary votes and preferences from One Nation.
Furthermore, the links between one of the two bids for the visa system and Scott Briggs, a close friend and confidant of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, give it a potential conflict of interest dimension that the Medicare campaign did not have. Given existing public concerns about a spate of government appointments and questionable contracts such as those with Paladin and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, it could become a big political headache for the Coalition in the middle of the campaign.
This last minute release of the tender documents on election eve might be the spark that ignites a campaign that neutralises what was seen as a Coalition strength as discussing “border security” becomes a discussion about their privatisation plans, forcing them onto the defensive.